The Elephant in the Room: the Republican Party in 2016

by Dafydd Townley

The race to be the party candidates for the 2016 election has been fascinating. It has confused poll analysts, political scientists, and broken from historical trends. All of this and it is only April. As onlookers we are still in doubt as to who will finally represent the Republican and Democrat parties in the general election after the national conventions in July. The prospective election leaves many questions unanswered, not least of which is ‘What is the future of the Republican Party?’

Meltdown. Civil War. Chaos. All have applied to the Republican Party over the last three months in particular, and continue to do so. The current state of the Grand Old Party (GOP) is of a party fighting to find its identity. The leadership of the GOP is currently swallowing its pride and pledging its support to Ted Cruz, a senator who has called members of his own party liars on the senate floor. This is in opposition to a man who has managed to attract more voters to the Republican caucuses and primaries than before, and is causing panic attacks among the leadership as his possible victory in the race for the party candidacy looks likely.

What will happen if Donald Trump wins the candidacy? Will there be a realignment of the GOP similar to that after the 1976 election? After the defeat of Gerald Ford in that year’s presidential election the Republicans turned right under the leadership of Ronald Reagan, leaving the political centre ground to the Democrats. Trump has managed to garner support across the ideological spectrum despite being accused of not being conservative. While his proposed policies seem to vary from extremism to centre ground he is in opposition to the conservative, evangelical-backed Cruz. Does this suggest a move to the middle for the Republicans, a move that will reject the Barry Goldwater conservatism that the party has adopted for the last forty years?

In fairness such a reformation of the Republican Party has been on the cards since the 20110 midterm elections. The rise – and success – of the Tea Party has threatened to challenge the establishment-led Republican Party. The Tea Party’s regionalised grassroots activism worked extremely well against small-majority Democrats who supported the Affordable care Act. It worked again in the 2014 midterms as Republicans adopted the methods that Democrats had until recently made so successful. The Republican Party holds an advantage in the House, in Congress, and at state level legislatures that it has not enjoyed since 1928. Why did it fail to get Mitt Romney elected in 2012? Why does it look as though Hillary Clinton will win the 2016 election? How will it go about changing things?

Elephant broken

As ever with American politics there is no simple answer. One significant factor is the gerrymandering of district boundaries by the Republicans at state level so that they win more seats than the Democrats even with fewer votes. It’s an entirely legal move that the Democrats have been oblivious to. Just as important is that Goldwater conservatism is out of date. It seems ironic that conservatism is anachronistic but there is no real desire for the welfare state in the United States to be rolled back, even by Republicans. And that is the problem with the Republican Party – it fails to identify what it is for. It is perfectly fine to target individual politicians on policies it stands against such as the Tea Party locally did in 2010 and 2014, but it has continuously wasted opportunities to showcase what policies it supports on a national level. Compare that with the programs such as Obamacare that the Democrat presidential candidates have been able to promote.

The multiple strands of conservative need uniting behind one ideology to be truly effective in winning the race for the White House, and effective while in office. And that is where Trump stands out. Yes his idea of a wall along the Mexican border is ridiculous as is his assertion that he will make the Mexican government pay for it. Yes – again – his proposal to ban all Muslims from entering the United States is not only unconstitutional but also impossible to administer. His appeal to the conservative electorate (and beyond) is that he is proposing something. A recognisable policy that has is almost tangible and measurable. Cruz? Low taxes. Free trade. It offers nothing that the electorate don’t already enjoy under the current administration.

While Trump’s politics may not be that of the traditional GOP it is something considerably more positive than that of Cruz, and that should be revelatory to the Republican elite. The party leadership has the opportunity to implement a top-down reformation that would give the party an identity that is both positive and unifying. A national message that is both negative in tone and ethereal in nature would end with further party fragmentation and the prospect of a bottom-up reformation led by Tea Party members. Will the Party be brave enough to attempt to regain the centre from the Democrats? Only Trump and time will tell.

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